Monday, April 26, 2010

The Best Albums of 2009

Every year, someone who has read my “Best Albums” list comes up to me and says, “I don’t know anyone on your list.” If you say that this year, I can only respond by asking, “Whose fault is that?” Indeed many of the top albums of 2009 were recorded by artists who have been in the forefront of music for at least the past decade. Even some with debut albums have made big splashes. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sitting around and listening to James Taylor and Billy Joel as much as anyone, but there is so much new and exciting music going on that artists like them and others of that ilk are just a small fraction of today’s wealth of recorded music options.

There’s another point to be made here: If you are still buying your music solely on CDs from music stores, I have a leisure suit to sell you. Most of the download sites, like iTunes, are free to install on your computer. After that, you can download individual songs for around $1 each, rather than buying entire albums from which you’re realistically going to listen to three or four songs. Sure, there are some complete albums worth owning, but they can be downloaded for less money than buying the CD. Then, you can burn CDs right from your computer to listen through your home or car music system. For those who believe that compressed music doesn’t sound as good as CDs, I’ll say that you probably can’t tell the difference unless you’re powering Wilson speakers with Classé amplifiers, in which case you can afford to buy all the CDs you want.

In terms of trends for 2009, quirky female vocalists are in vogue, as are performance artists. Also hot are Canadians and New Yorkers, with less new music coming from the West coast than at any time in the past 20 years. As usual, I’ll issue the disclaimer that my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Rap, Death Metal or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list.

In 2009, there were 125 albums worth listing, so I numbered the top 50 and left the rest for “Honorable Mention.” The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear any one album ahead of any other. With that said, here they are in ascending order:

50. The Avett Brothers: “I and Love and You” Combining folk, bluegrass, and Rock & Roll, the Avett Brothers hail from North Carolina and have released nine previous albums, but this is their first major label release. It is also one of their best and includes jewels like “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise,” “Kick Drum Heart,” and the title track.

49. Neko Case: “Middle Cyclone” Formerly with the New Pornographers, Canadian vocalist and drummer Neko Case has released eight albums containing everything from alternative country to punk rock. This is her best-known effort to date, and it includes gems like “This Tornado Loves You,” “The Next Time You Say Forever,” “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” and “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.”

48. Say Anything: “Say Anything” The brainchild of Los Angeles singer-songwriter Max Bemis, Say Anything can best be described as pop-punk art-house rock with interesting hooks and provocative lyrics. Although this is their fourth album, it is the first to be eponymously named. Outstanding cuts include “Do Better,” “Less Cute,” and “She Won’t Follow You.”

47. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” Although this, their first album, was self-released by the band in 2007, it didn’t come out into general release until this year. With it, this New York quartet introduced us to its infectious brand of indie rock, including “Young Adult Friction,” “Everything With You,” and “A Teenager In Love” (not a remake the old Dion classic).

46. Muse: “The Resistance” The English alternative rock band Muse, with its lush, wall-of-sound production and superb songwriting and musicianship, has released four previous albums, and although this is not as amazing as their classic, “Absolution,” it still shows why Muse is among the decade’s best bands. Listen to “Uprising,” “Resistance,” “Undisclosed Desires,” and “MK Ultra.”

45. The Catalogue Kings: “Astronauts and Angels” Although this is a new band, these are not young men. What they are is very talented, and lead singer Ian Hewitt sounds a lot like Elton John. The songs on this album are well-crafted and well-played, and they include “Here Is the News,” “Angels and Sirens,” and the beautiful “Long After the Rain Falls.”

44. Erin McKeown: “Hundreds of Lions” Originally from Virginia but now living in Northampton, MA, this Brown University graduate began her career as a folk singer, but she has progressed to this, her eighth album, on which she uses a variety of instruments to create a rich sound that compliments her outstanding songwriting skills. Songs include “Santa Cruz,” “The Foxes,” and “28.”

43. Rihanna: “Rated R” In 2009, Rihanna received the kind of publicity no one wants as a victim of domestic abuse. The Barbados native emerged with her fourth album, perhaps her best to date, including “Russian Roulette,” “Hard” (with Jeezy), and “Photographs” (with

42. Fanfarlo: “Reservoir” The London-based Fanfarlo was formed in 2006 by Swedish musician Simon Balthazar. His recipe is to write interesting, imaginative songs, then use a variety of instruments including horns and violins to play them. It works on this album, their first, which includes “Ghosts,” “The Walls Are Coming Down,” and “Finish Line.”

41. Josh Reichmann Oracle Band: “Crazy Power” A Canadian indie-rock singer-songwriter, Josh Reichmann released his first album using the pseudonym Jewish Legend. On this, his second album, he hits all the right notes with songs like “Sea At Night,” “Runes,” and “Shivering Black.”

40. Meg & Dia: “Here, Here and Here” Meg and Dia Frampton, from Utah, formed their band in 2004 and released two previous albums before this beauty, which straddles several musical styles and includes “Going Away,” “Hug Me,” and the title song.

39. Eugene McGuiness: “Eugene McGuiness” This unusual collection by the British singer-songwriter is his second album and draws upon a variety of influences ranging from the Kinks to Arctic Monkeys. It includes standouts like “Fonz,” “Those Old Black and White Movies Were True,” and “Not So Academic.”

38. Toxic Avenger 2009 Cast: “The Toxic Avenger Musical” The best musical theater album released in 2009 is this jaunt based on the 1984 cult classic comedy horror film. The cast does a nice job with campy but well-written rock songs including “Who Will Save New Jersey?” “Hot Toxic Love,” and “You Tore My Heart Out.”

37. Julian Casablancas: “Phrazes for the Young” The lead singer and songwriter of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas ventured out on his own with this effort which shows the artist’s depth and musicianship. Songs include “Out of the Blue,” “Left & Right In the Dark,” and “11th Dimension.”

36. Maxwell: “BLACKsummers’night” A Brooklyn native and one of the founders of the neo-soul movement, Maxwell returned to recording after an eight-year absence, picking up right where he left off with this beauty, featuring “Bad Habits,” “Pretty Wings,” and “Fistful of Tears.”

35. Ingrid Michaelson: “Everybody” A bright star in the New York indie pop scene, Ingrid Michaelson just keeps getting better since her 2005 debut. With this, her fourth album, she shows maturity and artistry through songs like “Everybody,” “Sort Of,” and “Mountain and the Sea.”

34. Blue October: “Approaching Normal” This Houston-based band has grown considerably from its emo-rock beginnings, leaving behind many of its contemporaries with smart songs that go beyond traditional rock genres. Those songs include “Say It,” “Been Down ,” “Jump Rope,” “Kangaroo Cry,” and the beautiful ballad, “Blue Does.”

33. Weezer: “Raditude” Weezer is the most dependable American alt-rock band, with every album containing several gems. This effort is no different, as Harvard alum Rivers Cuomo (who is recovering from the band’s recent bus accident) and his bandmates conjure up hummable tunes like “I’m Your Daddy,” “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” “The Girl Got Hot,” and “Can’t Stop Partying.”

32. 30 Seconds to Mars: “This Is War” Lead singer and actor Jared Leto (“My So Called Life,” “Fight Club”) fronts this band, which released two previous albums. Some have criticized them for abandoning their prog-rock roots for a more complete U2-like sound, but there are some excellent cuts here including “Kings and Queens,” “This Is War,” and “Vox Populi.”

31. Allison Iraheta: “Just Like You” Although Kris Allen and Adam Lambert finished ahead of her on American Idol, their debut albums pale in comparison to that released by third-place finisher Allison Iraheta. Her natural rock voice is perfect for songs including “Scars,” “Trouble Is,” and “You Don’t Know Me.”

30. India.Arie: “Testimony, Vol. 2: Love & Politics” I love India.Arie for her purity—both in her soul and her sound. The Denver native has taken neo-soul to new heights, and this, her fourth album, is an extension of her inner beauty and gorgeous voice. It features “He Heals Me,” “Therapy” (with Gramps Morgan), and “Chocolate High” (with Musiq Soulchild).

29. Gossip: “Music for Men” This indie pop-punk trio is fronted by Beth Ditto, who is very large and very talented. The group’s fourth album is loaded with edgy, well-written numbers like “Dimestore Diamond,” “Heavy Cross,” and “Love Long Distance.”

28. Bishop Allen: “Grrr...” Originally from Brroklyn, Justin Rice and Christian Scudder formed the group while attending Harvard University, naming it after Bishop Allen Drive. On this, their fourth album, they really hit their stride with inventive lyrics tied to well-written tunes that are slightly reminiscent of early They Might Be Giants. Songs include “Dimmer,” “The Ancient Commonsense of Things,” and “True or False.”

27. Tegan and Sara: “Sainthood” Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have released five previous albums, but on this one, they trade in a bit of their edginess for a more well-rounded sound. Nevertheless, their songwriting and musical skills are still on display with songs like “Hell,” “On Directing,” and “Alligator.”

26. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “It’s Blitz” The art punk trio from New York is one of the best and most consistent acts of the 2000s, having released three albums and several EPs during that period. This album features more of their angular rock riffs on songs like “Soft Shock,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Zero.”

25. Andrew Bird: “Noble Beast” Proficient in the violin, guitar, mandolin, and glockenspiel, Chicago’s Andrew Bird continues to produce his own unique brand of marvelous music on this, his fifth solo album, which includes “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” “Effigy,” and “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”

24. Anjulie: “Anjulie” Her parents are from Guyana and she was raised near Toronto, but her music is universal and infectious on her first, self-titled album. It’s hard not to hum along with her light, lovely voice on outstanding pop songs like “Boom,” “Crazy That Way,” and “Love Songs.”

23. Lady Gaga: “The Fame Monster” Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) is as much a performance artist as a recording star. A New York native and former student at NYU’s Tisch School, she burst on the scene last year with her album, “The Fame,” and she followed it up in 2009 with “The Fame Monster” on which she performs more of her dance-oriented grooves on songs like “Monster,” “Speechless,” and “Telephone” (with Beyoncé).

22. Chrisette Michele: “Epiphany” Combining R&B, jazz, and pop, Chrisette Michele Payne applies her effortlessly beautiful voice to every song she records. This is her second album, and she is quickly rising to the levels of some of the best song stylists. Pay attention to “Epiphany (I’m Leaving),” “What You Do” (with Ne-Yo), “Blame It On Me,” and “I’m Okay.”

21. Mark Mallman: “Invincible Criminal” On this, his ninth album, Minnesota’s Mark Mallman really hits his stride with well-written, well-played songs that remind you why you like to listen to music. Those songs include “Eternal Moonshine,” “You’re Never Alone In New York” (with Craig Finn), “Light the Dynamite and Fun,” and “In These Times of Harsh Economy” (with Shannon Frid).

20. Shakira: “She Wolf” Since Alex first introduced me to the music of Shakira Mebarak, I just can’t get enough of her hip-shaking, tremolo-filled style, and this album is no exception. The Columbian born artist is beautiful, philanthropic and enormously talented. Her sixth album includes “Did It Again,” “Good Stuff,” “Spy” (with Wyclef Jean), and “Give It Up to Me” (with Lil Wayne).

19. Green Day: “21st Century Breakdown” Even though this album is not so amazing as 2004’s “American Idiot” (very few are), it is certainly one of the year’s best from a group that has proven to be one of the most resilient and evolutionary groups of the past two decades. Pay attention to songs like “21st Century Breakdown,” “Viva la Gloria!” “21 Guns”, and “American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria / Modern World.”

18. Florence + The Machine: “Lungs” British songstress Florence Welch has hit all the right notes with her debut album of soul-inspired indie rock. This album defies definition or categorization. Just listen to songs like “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” “You’ve Got the Love,” and “Falling,” and you’ll understand.

17. Laura Izibor: “Let the Truth Be Told” Another debut artist with a soul-inspired sound, Laura Izibor is a Black woman from Dublin, where she won a 2006 Meteor Music Award while still in high school. This is an outrageously talented young woman who produces many of her own songs and possesses a voice that makes you stop and listen. Songs include “Don’t Stay,” “Shine,” and “From My Heart to Yours.”

16. Benjy Ferree: “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee” A singer-songwriter from Maryland with an unusual style and daring approach to music, Benjy Ferree wrote his second album about Bobby Driscoll, a former child star who eventually died in 1968 as a 31-year-old, homeless drug addict. I know what you’re probably thinking, but the album really works, as is evidenced by songs like “Fear,” “The Grips,” and “Zipperface Blues.”

15. Wonderlick: “Topless At the Arco Arena” Jay Blumenfield and Tom Quirk released their first album as Wonderlick in 2002, and they waited seven years to release this, their second album, which includes background vocals by Spark singer Wendy Allen and magician Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller). It was worth the wait for songs like “Everybody Loves Jenny,” “This Song Is a Commercial,” and “F**k Yeah.”

14. The Bird and the Bee: “Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future” Greg Kurstin and Inara George draw on their jazz chops for this electronic music collection comprising their second album together. The resulting sound is simultaneously trippy and rootsy with songs like “My Love,” “Ray Gun,” “Love Letter to Japan,” and “You’re a Cad.”

13. Richard Swift: “The Atlantic Ocean” Having performed under aliases including Dicky Ochoa, Company, and Onasis, Richard Swift has been writing and performing interesting, thoughtful music for years, but this may be his best effort. Sounding at times like an offshoot of the Beatles, it includes “Bat Coma Motown,” “R.I.P.,” “A Song for Milton Feher,” and the title song.

12. Elizabeth & The Catapult: “Taller Children” New York-based Elizabeth Ziman wrote a series of insightful, jazz-oriented songs and asked her friends Dan Molad and Pete Lalish to join her trio to perform this debut album. Her songs seem to make you stop whatever you’re doing and listen to them, including “Momma’s Boy,” “Race You,” and the beautiful “Golden Ink.”

11. Asa: “Asa” Born in Paris and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Asa’s vocals are triumphantly universal and remarkably infectious. This, her bebut album, includes “Jailer,” “360°,” “Fire On the Mountain,” and “Peace.

10. Rodrigo y Gabriela: “11:11” Wow! If you haven’t heard this Mexican duo play their inspired brand of acoustic guitar, you are in for a treat. You’ll be amazed that two people can make all that music—it’s like the first time you heard Simon and Garfunkel and realized that two people could sound like a choir. Well, this sounds nothing like Simon and Garfunkel, or anyone else for that matter, but it is very impressive...even the percussion is mostly made by them banging on their guitars. This, their third album, includes “Hanuman,” “Buster Voodoo,” and “Santo Domingo.”

9. God Help the Girl: “God Help the Girl” Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian created this side project with a bevy of vocalists led by Catherine Ireton. Written mostly by Stuart Murdoch, it tells the tale of a bored young woman named Eve who goes out to find some adventure. All the songs are good, but standouts include “God Help the Girl,” “Perfection As a Hipster,” “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie ,” and “A Down and Dusky Blonde.”

8. Dirty Projectors: “Bitte Orca” A project of Dave Longstreth, who recorded an album under his own name in 2002 before forming this entity in 2003. Since then, he has recorded eight albums, some of which are longer than others, as well as recording with the likes of David Byrne and Bjork. This is Dirty Projectors’ best album, with a German name meaning “Please Whale.” It contains gems like “Cannibal Resource,” “Two Doves,” and “Stillness Is the Move.”

7. Alicia Keys: “The Element of Freedom” Alicia Keys is one of those artists (along with Beyoncé and Joss Stone) who could sing the phone book and I would listen. Fortunately her songwriting is good too, so she can forgo the phone book. This album, released at the end of the year, is another example of why Keys is at the top level of the R&B food chain. It contains beauties like “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” and “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart.”

6. Zee Avi: “Zee Avi” This album’s worth it just for the story behind it. Zee Avi (originally Izyan Allrahman) was born in Borneo, a teenager in Kuala Lumpur, and a student in London before posting some songs on YouTube and being discovered, indeed swamped with record label offers. And yes, she is that good..unique songs that use every note in the scale in very different ways, complimented by her sweet, perky voice. Listen to “Bitter Heart,” “Honey Bee,” “Just You and Me,” and “Darling.”

5. Regina Spektor: “Far” The Moscow- born New York anti-folk goddess is one of the most influential artists working today. Indeed, many of the other artists on this list owe part of their sound to Spektor’s offbeat tunes, quirky lyrics, and piercing vocals. Each of her five albums during the decade is slightly different from the others, but they all contain that intangible that is uniquely hers. The songs on “Far” include “Laughing With,” “The Calculation,” “Eet,” “Folding Chair,” and “Dance Anthem of the 80’s.”

4. Devendra Banhart: “What Will We Be” Born in Houston and growing up in Venezuela before settling in California, Devendra Banhart released his seventh album since 2002. The music is unclassifiable, combining folk, psychedelia, and indie rock, but it is all very good. Songs include “Can’t Help But Smiling,” “Baby,” and “16th & Valencia Roxy Music.”

3. Animal Collective: “Merriweather Post Pavilion” Originally from Maryland, this group has released eight studio albums during the 2000s, and I do mean studio albums. The intricate production and experimental use of synthesizers and other instruments, combined with Beach Boys-style harmonies on this album, create a beautifully lush sound that can wow even the most casual listener. Songs include “My Girls,” “Summertime Clothes,” and “Brother Sport.”

2. Melanie Fiona: “The Bridge” This Canadian R&B singer-songwriter has produced one of the year’s most affecting debut albums. Combining clear R&B vocals with classic soul sounds, and even some sampling of 60s and 70s hits (I’m sure the Zombies don’t mind the royalties), the album simultaneously draws from new world and throwback music. Oh, and the girl can really sing too. Listen to “Give It to Me Right,” “Sad Songs,” and “It Kills Me.”

1. Kelly & the Kellygirls: “Modernism” In a year when American Idol should have been won by a gay man, the year’s best album is a little-known debut gem by an outwardly gay band from Toronto that combines horns with guitars and clear precise vocals with smart, infectious tunes. There’s no gimmick secret...just incredibly good songs being played and sung flawlessly and with a gusto that has disappeared from much of the rock world. I can’t help but smile when I hear songs like “Two Hundred Degrees Fahrenheit,” “Big Heart/ Big Tears,” “X,” and “City On Fire.”

The following deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

A.C. Newman: “Get Guilty”
All Time Low: “Nothing Personal”
Animal Kingdom: “Signs and Wonders”
Arctic Monkeys: “Humbug”
Ari Hest: “Twelve Mondays”
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour: “Fruit”
Bif Naked: “The Promise”
Boys Like Girls: “Love Drunk”
Bruce Springsteen: “Working On a Dream”
Club of the Sons: “Young Quanta”
Dashboard Confessional: “Alter the Ending”
Deborah Anderson: “Silence”
The Decemberists: “The Hazards of Love”
Eels: “Hombre Lobo”
Gary Go: “Gary Go”
Girls: “Album”
The High Strung: “Ode to the Inverse of the Dude”
Imogen Heap: “Ellipse”
Jay Brannan: “In Living Cover”
Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard: “One Fast Move or I’m Gone”
Jesse Harris: “Watching the Sky”
John Mayer: “Battle Studies”
Joker’s Daughter: “The Last Laugh”
Joss Stone: “Colour Me Free!”
Joy Jones: “Godchild”
Karmatest: “Sand in Sand”
Kings of Convenience: “Declaration of Dependence”
Leslie Mendelson: “Swan Feathers”
Lily Allen: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”
Linda Draper: “Bridge and Tunnel”
Manchester Orchestra: “Mean Everything to Nothing”
M. Ward: “Hold Time”
Mariah Carey: “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel”
Matisyahu: “Light”
Maximo Park: “Quicken the Heart”
Mayday Parade: “Anywhere But Here”
Melinda Doolittle: “Coming Back to You”
Melody Gardot: “My One and Only Thrill”
Mika: “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”
Morrissey: “Years of Refusal”
Norah Jones: “The Fall”
The Ofersures: “New Songs for Old Friends”
Oksana Grigorieva: “Beautiful Heartache”
Oleta Adams: “Let’s Stay Here”
OneRepublic: “Waking Up”
The Orange Peels: “2020”
Owl City: “Ocean Eyes”
Papercut Massacre: “If These Scars Could Talk”
Paramore: “All We Know Is Falling”
Passion Pit: “Manners”
Placebo: “Battle for the Sun”
Puddle of Mudd: “Volume 4: Songs In the Key of Love & Hate”
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus: “Lonely Road”
Relient k: “Forget and Not Slow Down”
Reverie Sound Revue: “Reverie Sound Revue”
Rhett Miller: “Rhett Miller”
Rob Thomas: “Cradlesong”
The Robert Cray Band: “This Time”
Ryan Shaw: “In Between”
Sean Paul: “Imperial Blaze”
Single File: “Common Struggles”
So Many Dynamos: “The Loud Wars”
Soundmonsters: “LoveHate Sounds”
The Sounds: “Crossing the Rubicon”
St. Vincent: “Actor”
The Swell Season: “Strict Joy”
Third Eye Blind: “Ursa Major”
Tom Waits: “Glimmer and Doom”
U2: “No Line On the Horizon”
Vedera: “Stages”
The Veils: “Sun Gangs”
We Are the Arsenal: “They Worshipped the Trees”
The Whitest Boy Alive: “Rules”
Wilco: “Wilco”
You Me At Six: “Take Off Your Colours”

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